Yesterday, during the opening session of the US Bishops’ fall annual meeting, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the American bishops’ conference, announced that the Holy See had intervened to stop the bishops from voting on two measures designed to tackle the Church’s ongoing sex abuse crisis. The Vatican has inexplicably ordered the bishops to wait on taking further action to address the crisis until after a February meeting in which the pope plans to gather the heads of the bishops’ conferences from around the world.
Ed Condon of the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports that the crowd of assembled bishops were “visibly surprised” at the announcement, based on orders DiNardo had from Rome just the day before the meeting began. The two draft documents that had been circulated before the meeting dealt with creating standards of conduct for bishops regarding abuse as well as a proposal to create an investigative commission to examine accusations against bishops. Condon reports that these initiatives “had been considered to be the bishops’ best chance to produce a substantive result during the meeting and signal to the American faithful that they were taking firm action” on clerical sex abuse. DiNardo, who has himself been accused of mishandling abuse, told the assembled bishops that he was “disappointed” in the decision from the Holy See to put a stop to the vote on these action items.
In a separate report, Condon, along with CNA editor J.D. Flynn, observed that the announcement of the Vatican directive “seemed to shock almost everyone in the room” except Cardinal Blase Cupich, who interrupted DiNardo while he was speaking to express support for Pope Francis, saying, “It is clear the Holy See is taking the abuse crisis seriously”. CNA also reported that according to some observers, Cupich “seemed prepared with comprehensive thoughts on the matter while most bishops, including DiNardo, seemed to still be processing the news.” This raises the question of whether Cupich, known as a strong papal ally in the American Church, was briefed ahead of time on what was coming, and how Rome wanted him to steer the conversation.
Whatever the case, it appears that Cupich was alone in his assessment of the decision to suppress the vote. On his Twitter account, Flynn noted that reporters had “already heard from several bishops who are angry.” Elsewhere, CNA indicated that DiNardo had questioned how the move fits with the “synodality” that appeared to be such an important theme coming out of the Youth Synod held in Rome last month:
“I’m wondering if they could turn the synodality back on us.” DiNardo said. “My first reaction was, this didn’t seem so synodical; but maybe the Americans weren’t acting so synodically either. But it was quizzical to me, when I saw it.”
According to the Washington Post, Bishop Shawn McKnight, appointed earlier this year to his first see in Jefferson City, Missouri, was far more forthright in his assessment of Rome’s decision: “This kind of thing is a blow to what we’re trying to overcome here in the United States – the perception of a hierarchy that is unresponsive to the reality of the tragedy,” he said. “I’m beginning to wonder if we need to look at a resolution where we refuse to participate in any kind of cover-up from those above us … It’s for the good of the church.” McKnight had previously described as “almost unbearable” how “a brother bishop” [McCarrick] could “disrespect with such callousness the dignity of young boys, seminarians, and priests over decades and no one called him on the carpet.”
The directive not to hold the vote came specifically from the Congregation for Bishops, the prefect of which is Cardinal Marc Oullet, who came out strongly in an ad hominem attack against Former US Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò last month after Viganò had requested that he reveal what he knew about McCarrick and the restrictions Pope Benedict had placed on his ministry and public life, including “key documents incriminating McCarrick and many in the curia for their cover-ups”. Cardinal Wuerl, who succeeded McCarrick in the Washington DC archdiocese, is also a prominent member of the congregation. Wuerl’s resignation was recently accepted by the Holy See after mounting public pressure that he be removed for his role in the sex abuse crisis during his tenure as bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as allegations that he had knowledge of McCarrick’s misconduct. Wuerl has remained as apostolic administrator of D.C. since his resignation, and is considered to continue to have significant influence in the Church — particularly in the appointment of bishops. Bishop Martin Holley, formerly of Memphis, Tennessee, was removed from his position last month – a decision he believes came “at the behest” of Wuerl, whose appointment to a prominent Vatican position Holley opposed in 2012. The Vatican has made clear that the reasons for Holley’s removal were “not abuse-related.”
An Unsurprising Surprise
Though few seemed to expect Rome to take such decisive form of intervention, the mind of the Holy See on the matter was not unknown to the American Bishops. In September, after their appeal to the pope to provide an apostolic visitation to investigate more deeply into the life of former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was rejected, it was reported that sources close to the Vatican indicated that “Francis had urged the U.S. bishops to cancel their upcoming November meeting, and take a week of closed retreat instead”.
It was also in September that noted German theologian and editor Benjamin Leven revealed in an article in Herder Korrespondenz that Vatican sources were saying it was Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, close adviser to the pope on canonical matters and alleged to have been present at the “drug-fueled gay orgy” in an apartment of one of his priest-employees last year, who “promoted an attitude of indulgence at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith toward priests who were responsible for sexual abuse.” Leven believes that it was through Coccopalmerio’s intercession that ” several priests who were working in the disciplinary section responsible for handling cases of abuse were dismissed from the CDF.” These priests, readers will recall, were dismissed without cause over the objections of then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. When the cardinal asked the pope why the men were being dismissed, he is claimed to have responded, “I am the pope, I do not need to give reasons for any of my decisions. I have decided that they have to leave and they have to leave.”
In his September article, Leven also claims that “it was Pope Francis himself who intervened to stop the plan ‘to establish a permanent criminal tribunal for bishops’ implicated in cases of sexual abuse.”
Given that the US Bishops were given no notice of Rome’s decision to suppress their vote, and no real explanation, is this week’s decision yet another manifestation of an increasingly autocratic papacy?
In the Absence of Leadership, Confusion and Doubt
Back in September, on the heels of the Vatican’s rejection of their request for an internal investigation of McCarrick, the USCCB Administrative Committee announced a four-step plan to begin addressing the problem of clerical abuse. Among the four steps, which included the establishment of a third-party reporting system and potential policies for dealing with bishops who had been credibly accused of abuse or misconduct, were the broad outlines of the two initiatives they were forbidden from voting on during this week’s meeting. J.D. Flynn of CNA, who is live tweeting the bishops’ meeting, said this morning that the bishops were proceeding with a discussion of the four items, but that “I’m not sure I completely understand what is going to happen in this discussion” now that the vote was cancelled, “or that many bishops do.” Flynn reports that “DiNardo says discussion is not intended to flout the authority of the holy see, but to do only things within the purview of the USCCB.” There is a fear, according to Flynn and Condon, that if the bishops were to “simply pass their agenda items as planned, defying Rome’s directive,” this could be “dangerously close to an act of schism.”
Viganò Issues Statement, Exhorts the US Bishops “to lead the flock to Christ.”
Archbishop Viganò, who has been instrumental in drawing attention to clerical abuse cover-up at the highest levels of the Church, issued a new statement himself today, following the news that the Vatican had shut down the primary thrust of the US bishops’ meeting. In it, he urged the bishops to remember the scriptural admonition that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!” and to act accordingly. “Do not behave like frightened sheep,” he wrote “but as courageous shepherds.”
“Do not be afraid of standing up and doing the right thing for the victims, for the faithful and for your own salvation,” he continued.”The Lord will render to every one of us according to our actions and omissions.”
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children.